“If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all” is a familiar refrain, and not just for fans of Hee Haw. Is the universe cruel? Or just … lumpy? (More)

Planning for Chance, Part I – Lumpiness

This week Morning Feature looks at the role of chance our lives. Today we examine lumpiness: why events come in clusters, and why we especially notice clusters of bad events. Tomorrow we consider crunchiness: the conservative view of how to deal with chance. Saturday we’ll discuss the progressive alternative: robustness.

“Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me.”

The television series Hee Haw both celebrated and spoofed country music. When conspiracy theories about backmasking were popular, there was a joke about what happened if you played a country song backward: you got your truck, your dog, your house, and your wife back. Mournful ballads were and still are a staple of country music, and the creators of Hee Haw wrote one of their own:

Both Hee Haw‘s spoof and the mournful ballads themselves were popular because they touch on a common experience. Many of us sometimes feel that “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all,” especially when several bad events happen in a relatively short time. And that seems to be how life works. The proverb “misfortunes never come singly” is at least 800 years old, and one American version says “trouble comes in bunches, like grapes.” The superstition that troubles come in threes has been applied to plane crashes, celebrity deaths, and even as Avery’s Rule for household accidents. Or we may use a weather metaphor: “When it rains, it pours.”

There are plenty of proverbs, but are they true?

Yes … unfortunately.

Events do come in clusters, both good and bad. And, unfortunately, clusters of bad events are more common. That word “unfortunately” is both emotional and analytical. Clusters of bad events hurt, unfortunately. But despite common expressions about a black cloud hovering over us, or the proverbial Universal Dump Truck backing up to our doors, clusters of bad events are not proof of a cruel universe – or an angry deity – which has singled us out for torment. They’re are simply the unfortunate confluence of chance.

In 100 fair tosses of a coin, you should get something close to 50 heads and 50 tails. You can watch a mathematical simulation of coin tosses. I just paused a series after 100 tosses, and it showed 54 heads and 46 tails. But after 50 flips, it had showed 22 heads and 28 tails. Neither of those is surprising. To guarantee very close to a 50/50 distribution, you need a whole lot of tosses. (You can click the “Automatic coin toss, Fast” button to see that happen.)

In fact, it would be astonishing if a series of 100 coin tosses went exactly heads-tails-heads-tails – or vice versa – all the way to 50 heads and 50 tails. How astonishing? The odds of that are only 1-in-633,825,300,114,114,700,748,351,602,688. That’s 30 digits. To put that number in context, the universe is 473,040,000,000,000,000 seconds old. That’s 18 digits. In other words, if you’d been flipping coins, one series of 100 flips per second, every second, since the birth of the universe … the odds are less than one in a billion that even one of those series would have exactly alternated 50 heads and 50 tails.

Simply, in a random series of coin tosses, lumps of heads and lumps of tails are normal. Chance is lumpy, and both good and bad events come in lumps.

But why do I get more bad lumps?

Most of us think we get more lumps of bad events. Some of that is perception. Our brains are wired to focus more on bad things, and for good reason: they’re more likely to need our attention. If you’re sitting in a comfortable office chair on a fine spring morning, with the phone still blissfully silent and a cup of delicious coffee in hand, focused on all of those good things … while the building is on fire … you’re probably not going to live long. The chair may be comfy and the weather may be fine and the phone may be silent and the coffee may be delicious – all good things – but you had better focus on the one bad thing: the building is on fire!

But not all of the bad lumps are perception. Some of it is, again, the predictable outcome of random chance. Most good events happen because lots of little things go right, not only individually but collectively. If you drive to work and get there on time, it’s because you woke on time, and there were no exceptional domestic crises, so you left on time, and nothing in your car broke, and weren’t stuck at a road repair or behind an accident, and….

The point is, a lot of little things have to go right for you to get to work on time, a good event. And only one or two have to go wrong to make you late, a bad event.

What’s more, the “bigger” the event, the more little things have to go right for it to go well. That’s why Really Good Events are relatively rare in most of our lives, and that’s why we celebrate them. But Really Bad Events don’t need many things to go wrong. You stop at a red light and the driver behind you looks down to see who just texted. Crunch. If the driver was also speeding – just two things going wrong – that’s likely to be a Really Bad Event.

We see more bad lumps because it’s easier for bad events to happen. All bad events require is a moment of inattention, or missing a key piece of information, or one or two little things that didn’t quite fall into place.

The universe isn’t cruel, but it is lumpy. And as we’ll see this week, one key difference between conservatives and progressives is how we prepare for life’s lumps.

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Happy Thursday!